EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- With a big paycheck comes even bigger responsibility.
That has never been more evident than with New York Giants defensive lineman Leonard Williams. He is the highest-paid player on the team after signing a three-year, $63 million deal this offseason that included $45 million in guaranteed money -- the fourth most ever given to a Giants player. Yet, he has been invisible for long stretches in the first five games.
Williams is pocketing a team-high $26 million this year, well ahead of bigger names such as quarterback Daniel Jones and running back Saquon Barkley. And Williams' salary-cap hit, reduced to $9.4 million just before the season, will balloon to $27.3 million next season unless the Giants restructure his deal again.
For this whopping price, Williams has produced 1.5 sacks, four quarterback hits and 26 tackles. He's tied for 91st in the NFL with eight quarterback pressures through five games, per NFL Next Gen Stats. He averaged almost three per game last season while recording a career-best 11.5 sacks.
Just about every metric suggests Williams is having a slow start. His pressure percentage is 5.2% -- barely half of last season's 9.7%. He ranks 50th out of 62 qualifying defensive tackles with a pass rush win rate of 5.8%.
To say Williams has been a disappointment is an understatement. Given his struggles, it's hardly a surprise the Giants (1-4) allowed 515 yards in a 44-20 loss against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 5. Next up is a visit on Sunday from the 4-1 Los Angeles Rams (1 p.m. ET, Fox), who average 28.2 points per game.
"You need your best players to play well. You need that," defensive coordinator Patrick Graham said. "It's not even about the money to me. I don't talk about money and stuff. Our best players have to play well. That is how the league is set up."
Graham was talking big picture, but it applies to his team. It's not just Williams who needs to step up. It's defensive backs Adoree' Jackson ($16 million total pay in 2021), James Bradberry ($14 million) and Logan Ryan ($5.5 million) as well. They are all being paid handsomely on relatively new deals and performing below expectations. Bradberry has allowed four touchdowns as the nearest defender, tied for the most in the NFL. Jackson is allowing a passer rating of 98.3, the eighth highest among defenders targeted at least 30 times. And according to Pro Football Focus data, Ryan is ranked 64th out of 85 qualifying safeties this season.
New York's defense has become a weak spot one year after it was the strength of the team under Graham. The Giants rank 29th in total defense (408.6 yards per game) and 26th in points allowed (27.8) this season. In 2020, they ranked 12th in total defense (349.3 ypg) and ninth in points allowed (22.3).
Fixing it starts with Williams, who proved last season that he can be the most impactful player on that unit. If Williams creates pressure, it can cover up some of the deficiencies elsewhere, including the middle of the field, where they are without starting middle linebacker Blake Martinez (torn ACL) for the rest of the season.
Williams has had his moments. He ranks 12th among defensive linemen with a 40.0% run stop win rate on the interior, and he's facing double-teams at a higher-than-average rate.
"Would you like him to be a lot more disruptive? Do you want him to re-establish the line of scrimmage? Do you want him to create negative plays for the opposing offenses? Absolutely," former Giants defensive lineman and current ESPN radio host Chris Canty said. "You want all of those things, but you also can't discount the other things that don't show up in the stat sheet that Leonard does really, really well. So I think it is something that fans need to take into consideration when trying to gauge how he is playing this year.
"That being said, when you're getting paid [an average of] $21 million a year, you have to give more to your team when you start out 1-4. That is just what it is. Everyone on that team has to give more, and of course you have to start with the guys that have the highest salaries and are higher up on the pay scale. Leonard Williams has got to be better, but so do a lot of other guys on the team."
The pressure on Williams is amplified in part because the Giants don't have many other pass-rush options.
Interior defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence leads the team in quarterback pressures with nine. Rookie linebacker Azeez Ojulari is tied with nose tackle Austin Johnson for the team lead with three sacks.
Graham and the coaching staff are putting it on themselves to get Williams into better matchups against the weak link on the opposing offensive line. That is not going to be easy Sunday against the Rams, who have allowed a league-low four sacks this season.
But this is why they pay Williams the big bucks.
"Obviously, he sees a lot of combinations and double-teams, players sliding to him and different things like that," coach Joe Judge said. "If you're getting extra attention, we've got to make sure we get opportunities for other players to make plays off of one-on-one situations.
"I'm pleased with how Leonard's doing. We'll keep on doing different things schematically as a coaching staff to put him in a position to be successful and productive, but I'm very pleased in how he's working and how he comes to work every day."
The problem is, it's not enough just to work hard when you're being paid like Williams. It's time to produce.